Did you know May is Jewish American Heritage Month? You may not: it’s a new commemoration, proclaimed by President Bush in 2006.
Alabama, like much of the South, is not known for having a large Jewish population, yet Jewish Americans have been part of the state’s history from the beginning. According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, Mobile attracted Jewish immigrants in the 1820s, and by the 1840s they flocked to cotton market towns like Montgomery and Selma. Later, in the early 20th century, they settled in industrial communities such as Birmingham and Bessemer.
Like Huntsville and Dothan, Tuscaloosa saw its Jewish population grow after the Civil War, as the town rebuilt itself. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many Jews in Tuscaloosa were merchants, largely from Hungary or Germany. Businessmen Ike Friedman and Adolph Holzstein helped establish the first congregation in Tuscaloosa, Temple Emau-El, in 1903. Prominent Jewish businesses included Bernard Friedman’s Atlanta Store, Max Pizitz’s Mercantile Company, a clothing store run by Sam Wiesel, a furniture store run by Morris Sokol, and a deli run by the Kartzinel family. By the 1960s and 1970s, though, these businesses were declining.
According to the Encyclopedia entry on Tuscaloosa, “While the decline of the Jewish merchant class affected many other small Jewish communities, Tuscaloosa has managed to thrive in spite of it due to the presence of the university,” which attracted Jewish faculty and students. UA’s first Hillel House was built in 1934. The Rho chapter of sorority Sigma Delta Tau was established in 1935, and fraternity Zeta Beta Tau has an even longer history: the Psi chapter was founded at UA in 1916.
The campus Jewish population is smaller now — according to the Bama Hillel website, “There are over 700 Jewish students at Alabama, and we are growing every year!” — but it is still active. The Tuscaloosa congregation continues to depend on its ties with the university community, as it meets in a new facility on the UA campus, adjacent to the new Bloom Hillel Student Center.
Acumen has finding aids for archival collections related to Jews in Alabama:
- Charles E. Adams papers — Materials on an early 20th century Jewish synagogue in West Blocton, Alabama
- Hillel Foundation records — Records, mostly correspondence of Rabbi Henry A. Fischel (1948-1956), relating to the activities of the Hillel Foundation and its role in student life at the University of Alabama.
- Leon J. Weinberger papers — Correspondence, photocopies of the Torah and other religious documents, scholarly work in English and Hebrew, materials relating to the Judaic Studies series of The University of Alabama Press, and other materials produced and gathered by this University of Alabama professor.
It also has finding aids for collections related to Judaism or Jewish Americans:
- Sheldon Rosenzsweig collection of publications about Israel — Published materials commemorating the twentieth, twenty-fifth, and thirtieth anniversaries of the founding of the Jewish state of Israel.
- Berman Family papers — digitized and online! — Material created and kept by the Berman family of St. Louis, Missouri. These are primarily letters written, often in Hebrew, by Dr. William (Bill) Berman and his wife Marian from Ft. Riley, Kansas, where Bill served as an Army doctor during World War Two.